Point of View: Thomas
My mother and I sometimes argue about which of us has the right approach. When it comes to life in the church, I tend to be an optimist. Despite forecasts to the contrary, I am usually sure that we are going to meet all our financial needs, that we will have a good turnout for something, that an event will be successful. But when it comes to everything else, I must admit that I am, well . . . my mother would call me a pessimist. My mother is an optimist in virtually all things and in all matters. For example, even though I am sure I have had some bad sermons, my mother, who reads mine every week, is quite sure that all my messages are excellent. You agree with her, don’t you? Don’t you? Also, my mom is always pretty sure she has enough money, regardless of her actual financial situation. It is a lovely attitude, to be sure, but sometimes it means she doesn’t ask me for help when I think she should. Ever the optimist. I, on the other hand, prefer to think of myself not as a pessimist, but as a realist. I am just realistic about how things are, and how things might be. My mother, though, says that pessimism is just being disappointed twice. You are disappointed before something even happens, and then disappointed again when it turns out you were right. Optimism, she says, means at least you are happy to start out with! What are you? Optimist? Pessimist? Realist?
Today we look at our last Point of View study, Thomas. Of course, he is known mostly as doubting Thomas, but I think Thomas probably thought of himself more as Thomas the realist. Thomas, also called the Twin, was one of the twelve. Matthew, Mark, and Luke do not mention Thomas outside the list of the twelve disciples. But John gives us more to go on. First, we see him when Jesus' friend Lazarus dies, and Jesus and the twelve journey to his home and Jesus raises Lazarus. Jesus says that he is glad he was not with Lazarus, so that what is about to unfold will cause the disciples to believe. And it is Thomas who responds, saying, “Let us also go, so that we may die with him.” Thomas knows something special is unfolding, and tries to show his dedication, even if he doesn’t know quite what it all means. We next hear from Thomas when Jesus is speaking the words we most often hear at a funeral: “In my father's house there are many dwelling places.” Jesus says that the disciples know where Jesus is going, but Thomas responds, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus responds that he is the way.
Finally, we come to today's scene. Our text opens on the evening of Easter Sunday. At this point in John's account, only Mary Magdalene has seen the risen Christ. Peter and another disciple had seen the empty tomb, but left before seeing Jesus. Mary had told them that she’d seen Jesus, but we see today that her news apparently had little effect on them. The disciples are locked up in the house where they’re staying, afraid because of the events of Jesus’ crucifixion and death. They’re not rejoicing. They’re scared. But suddenly, Jesus appears, and says, “Peace be with you.” He shows them his wounds, confirming that he is the very Jesus they saw die. He talks to them about practicing forgiveness. He again blesses them with peace, and tells them they will be sent as he was sent. He breathes on them, and speaks of the Holy Spirit, and gives them authority.
But Thomas isn’t there with them for some reason. The disciples share what they have seen – that they’ve seen Jesus. But Thomas, the realist, says that unless he sees for himself, he won’t believe. A week later, the disciples are again in the house together, this time with Thomas too. Jesus again appears, with words of peace. And this time, Thomas sees for himself. “My Lord and my God!” he exclaims. Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
We hear very little about Thomas after this, but church history holds that Thomas eventually travelled to India, and was the first to share the good news of Jesus there. For most, though, he is remembered as Doubting Thomas. But I think the gospel of John actually shows us someone who was trying very hard to be faithful, asked questions, and was looking for answers. A realist. I think Thomas would fit in pretty well with how most of us approach matters of faith in the 21st century.
As you know, we have been having a Bible 101 study that started back in January. After a hiatus for Lent, we are back on (we will meet on Tuesday this week – 6:30pm, Panera Bread, Marshalls Plaza, Erie Blvd.) One of the things we've talked about a couple of times is this: Why doesn’t God seem to talk to us today like God used to? In the Bible, there are all these stories that seem to suggest God speaks to people in clear and obvious ways, with very tangible signs. But these days, most of us can’t claim to have seen a sea parted in half, or a burning bush, or someone walking on water, or someone feeding 5000 people with a few items of food. And so, we wonder sometimes: Is God still speaking to us? Is God just silent now? Do we just not get it?
I told that class my theory on it all. I hope Marsha won’t mind if I use her as an example. Marsha shared with us that she has been told she has a child-like faith. I know Marsha has mixed feelings about this, but I figure that since Jesus tells us we should be more like little children, Marsha is doing just fine. But Marsha, when she reads the Bible – she reads it, accepts it, believes it, and feels like what she sees it what she gets. I am pretty sure that if God started chatting with Marsha, she would think it was awesome, but she wouldn’t bat an eyelid, she wouldn’t be skeptical. That’s a gift. But I think in this day and age, most of us just aren’t like that. If someone told us they had walked on water, we would think that they were nuts. If someone told us God appeared to them in a burning bush, we would, well, I think most of us would have our doubts. And I think, I believe, God knows it. Why would God insist on speaking to us in ways that we are not able to hear or understand or believe? Have you ever seen someone try to just speak in slower, louder English to someone who doesn’t speak English? Not very effective. So I think God gets our attention in different ways these days, ways that speak to our skeptical, realist hearts.
Have any of you read seen the new movie, based on the book, The Hunger Games? The movie has a scene the book does not, since the book is in the first person, and the movie takes a broader view. In this scene, President Snow talks to the Game Maker, Seneca Crane, about striking the right balance between hope and fear among the oppressed people of the districts of Panem, the name of what once was the United States. Snow asks Seneca, “Why do you think we have a winner?” “What do you mean?” he replies. “I mean, why do we have a winner? Hope.” “Hope?” “Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, as long as it’s contained.” “So?” “So… contain it.” I wonder, I wonder what would happen if we substituted faith in this exchange: “A little faith is effective. A lot of faith is dangerous. A spark is fine, as long as it is contained.”
This image of Thomas is one of the most famous of the disciple – Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Thomas. An article I read this week brought something to my attention: Jesus has grabbed Thomas's wrist, and guided it to touch his wound. Thomas was a questioner, a skeptic a realist. And Jesus met him where he was at. In fact, Jesus went beyond that, guiding Thomas's hand to the proof Thomas needed. And apparently, that was all Thomas did need to say, “My Lord and My God” and to give the rest of his life in service to the gospel. Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” though, and I believe Jesus is trying to nudge us, push us, beyond the little bit of faith we usually get by on, faith that sustains us, but maybe faith that is so safe, so realist-oriented, that it doesn’t push us into the risk-taking places God would lead us if we were ready to follow.
Thomas's faith was strong enough, in the end, to take him far away from the other disciples, into unknown lands, in order to help more people know about Jesus. Thomas, who needed to see Jesus for himself, spent the rest of his life helping others who would never see Jesus face to face believe in his message all the same. Isn't that something? Thank God for meeting us where we are. And thank God for pushing us beyond where we thought we could ever go. “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Amen.